Kevin Kiermaier was already feeling pretty good about himself that Monday night in Chicago a couple of weeks ago when he made an impressive, albeit just unsuccessful, leaping bid to rob Jose Abreu of a home run then unleashed a blur of a throw to the plate to nail Alexei Ramirez and preserve the Rays' 5-4 win against the White Sox.
Then he heard something that really made him happy, teammate Grady Sizemore yelling over to him: "You're the best centerfielder I've ever seen!"
That's high praise coming from anyone, but particularly Sizemore. That's because he was considered one of the game's best centerfielders — a three-time All-Star who won Gold Gloves in 2007-08 — before injuries ravaged his career.
"That meant a lot to me," Kiermaier said. "That really made me happy."
As Kiermaier relayed the story the day after, he acknowledged that he didn't know if Sizemore was being sincere. And he admitted, for fear of bursting the bubble, that he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.
"I don't know if he meant it," Kiermaier said. "But those words did come out of his mouth."
Sizemore laughed when Kiermaier's angst was relayed to him.
"Of course I meant it," Sizemore said. "He does things I've never seen a centerfielder do before."
How'd he do that?
What makes Kiermaier so good?
Well, you have to start with his legs. They are what allow him to cover so much ground so quickly, his speed the base for his growing list of spectacular running, diving and leaping plays. (As a fringe benefit, they allow the Rays to position their less mobile outfielders differently.)
But it's not all just raw athleticism. Kiermaier also has the instincts and intuitiveness to make quick jumps, and he worked hard during his climb through the minors to make good reads off the bat.
"His jumps are tremendous," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "The way he covers ground, his closing speed on balls in the gaps is like nothing I've ever seen. Balls are hit off the bat and you put your head down like, 'That's a double,' and sure enough, he ends up slamming up against the wall catching it."
Then you have to factor in his right arm, a weapon that makes him doubly dangerous as he erases runners from the bases. Cash says it's the best of any centerfielder, which, by definition, would include Mike Trout's.
Kiermaier's 12 assists through Friday were second in the majors behind the Tigers' J.D. Martinez and the Rangers' demoted Leonys Martin, who were tied at 13. But they are becoming harder for Kiermaier to get because teams are becoming noticeably reticent to run on him.
An mlb.com StatCast breakdown of that Aug. 3 play in Chicago highlights Kiermaier's assets: He got a good break, taking his first step 0.298 seconds after the ball left the bat, reached a top speed of 18 mph in getting to the ball and threw home at a sizzling 96.1 mph.
Best of the best
Asking around the Rays' clubhouse for the best Kiermaier plays is time-consuming, because everyone has a list he keeps adding to. "He wows us every night," Cash said.
Ask Kiermaier, and he smiles and says, "The best is yet to come." But when pressed for his best, he narrowed the candidates to two. Then he made an addition of his own Friday with a leap at the wall in Texas, saving his first home run in the majors.
Here are Kiermaier's best:
• April 12, 2014, at Cincinnati: Called up for a cameo and making his first big-league start, Kiermaier threw a laser to the plate to nail Joey Votto in the fourth inning to preserve a 1-0 lead that turned out to be the final score. "That was the most proud I've felt from a defensive standpoint," Kiermaier said. "My first start, I didn't know what to expect, what was going to happen. To make that throw was just the coolest way to start."
• June 11, 2014, vs. St. Louis: Racing from rightfield toward center with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth with a 4-3 lead, Kiermaier soared nearly horizontally to make a flying grab of Peter Bourjos' line drive. "That might have been the most challenging and most difficult play," he said. "I was kind of flying through the air like that, and (the ball) got lost in the lights for a split second, so it was kind of scary as I was jumping, but it came out soon enough. That crowd ovation was something I never experienced before just for me."
• Friday, at Texas: Having just missed on Abreu's ball and a handful of others in his first 216 games in the outfield, Kiermaier lived up to his nickname, "The Outlaw," by stealing a home run from Prince Fielder in the fifth by leaping above the centerfield wall. "I (saw) that he hit it well off the bat and I just wanted to time my jump good and make the catch," Kiermaier said. "I had a chance to do it in Chicago … so I'm glad I came down with it right there."
Getting a reputation
Kiermaier has a compelling back story as a 31st-round draft pick out of Fort Wayne, Ind. He gets plenty of attention for his looks, especially his "dreamy" eyes. And he is fan-friendly and generous with his time for charitable endeavors. But he notes that he isn't that well-known nationally — yet — for his onfield abilities, but that is starting to change.
His defensive highlights have made him a regular among ESPN's Web Gems and other highlight packages. In Baseball America's Best Tools survey of American League managers, he was tied for first with Royals All-Star Lorenzo Cain as the top defensive outfielder and third for outfield arm behind Yoenis Cespedes (then with the Tigers) and Martin.
Kiermaier's speed can be game-changing on the bases as well.
He has made several outfielders look bad in taking advantage of their casual play by bursting out of the box and turning routine singles into doubles. (The Rays' public relations staff tracks his "hustle extra-base hits" and had him with eight entering Saturday.)
He has become more daring on the bases, stealing 12 bases in his past 76 games after only five in his first 143. And he led the majors with 11 triples entering Saturday, more than two other teams.
• So, just to review: The Rays traded David DeJesus, a left-handed-hitting outfielder known for quality at-bats, then claimed Daniel Nava, a primarily left-handed-hitting outfielder known for quality at-bats. And they traded RHP Kevin Jepsen, a veteran reliever they could use in high-leverage innings, and are looking to make a waiver-wire deal to pick up a veteran reliever they could use in high-leverage innings. Got it.
• Whatever benefit Sun Sports sees in its new flex scheduling plan, it seems odd to keep pre-, in-game and postgame host extraordinaire Todd Kalas away from the team for 10 straight games, with some days off and some hosting from the Fort Lauderdale studio.
The Rays have been active, but thus far unsuccessful, in waiver claims, looking for relief help among other areas. … RHP Trey McNutt, who was the other choice to RHP Chris Archer in the January 2011 Matt Garza trade with the Cubs, was released last week from the rookie-level Arizona League team. … There's talk that talks on a new TV deal with Sun Sports are fairly far along. … 2016 interleague trips are to the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Marlins and Rockies, with the Dodgers, Giants, Marlins and Padres coming to Tropicana Field. … Odd, but now customary: Rays regular-season games getting bumped off 620-AM for Bucs exhibitions, as was the case Saturday night. … LHP Matt Moore made an interesting comment about his demotion to Triple-A Durham, telling the Durham Herald-Sun that he didn't take along his golf clubs because he didn't want to send the wrong message: "I'm coming here to work."
By any measure
Putting a true statistical value on defense remains a work in progress, but by any measure, Kiermaier ranks among the most impactful players in the game. Consider if there were a system similar to hockey's plus-minus and it's safe to say that most nights, even if Kiermaier made four outs at the plate, he would save more than four outs in the field and would come out ahead. In two of the most commonly used defensive metrics, Kiermaier ranked at the top through Friday:
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS)
Measuring the number of runs, above or below average, a player is worth based on the number of plays made, provided by Baseball Info Solutions and posted on bb-reference.com:
Player, pos. Team DRS
Kevin Kiermaier, CF Rays 29
Brandon Crawford, SS Giants 19
Kevin Pillar, OF Blue Jays 19
Buster Posey, C Giants 19
Andrelton Simmons, SS Braves 19
Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)
Measuring the number of runs a player saved or gave up through fielding prowess, provided by fangraphs.com:
Player, pos. Team UZR
Kevin Kiermaier, CF Rays 20.6
Yeonis Cespedes, OF Mets 15.4
Adeiny Hechavarria, SS Marlins 13.9
Billy Hamilton, CF Reds 12.7
Jason Heyward, RF Cardinals 11.8